Tag Archive: alternate history


Review by C.J. Bunce

It’s fun to both know what you’re getting and to get some surprises, too.  That’s the case with Hard Case Crime’s latest novel, Jason Starr’s The Next Time I Die.  It’s billed as a paranoid thriller, a mix of Philip K. Dick and The Twilight Zone.  But the publisher is the home of classic crime novels, right?  It so happens that not only is The Next Time I Die a retelling of sorts of a few PKD short stories, it’s a mix of a number of sci-fi tropes while pulling in a protagonist you might find in old crime stories like Rudolph Maté’s D.O.A., James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, and Vera Caspary’s Laura.  All in, it’s a lot of fun.

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Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, a 2004 alternate history and sci-fi/fantasy adventure amalgamation is one of those films that is best known for its visuals in a way similar to The Rocketeer and The Iron Giant, and, like those films, it maintains a bit of a cult following.  As with Dick Tracy, The Phantom, The Shadow, and Sin City, the movie attempted to emulate the look of classic comics, and like The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, it borrowed heavily from creations of the past, especially Flash Gordon, film noir, and Captain America. 

Unfortunately, also like the movies noted above, it lacked a compelling script, which probably accounted for its lackluster showing with audiences.  For the majority of movie audiences, it remains an obscure, “nice-looking” picture that you may have tried on Netflix and probably given up on.  But for those who count themselves fans, you now have a behind-the-scenes chronicle of the movie’s visuals, Sky Captain and the Art of Tomorrow, launching today and available here at Amazon.  Take a look inside below.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

The late great economics teacher Gordon Blenderman used a similar approach to Yanis Varoufakis’s back in the 1980s, along with the requisite readings from Samuelson: Prove that you understand theories of economics by writing a book review of classic novels, explaining the plots in purely economic terms.  Varoufakis, the former finance minister of Greece, a current member of the Greek parliament, and economics professor, uses an age-old tack in his new political science fiction novel, Another Now Varoufakis sees the banking/market crisis of 2008 as one of those key, fixed points in history that is the subject of many a parallel universe, alternate history, or multiverse tale.  As if digging into the circumstances behind the split into two worlds that occurred in the science fiction TV series Counterpart, the author leans hard into economics theory to hypothesize his idea of a better political structure than capitalism by building a parallel world that responded differently to its crises up to and including the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Ancient philosophers have discussed the concept for millenia: What is the nature of life?  Are we part of the plan of an architect of all things or do we have a say in our future?  The latest exploration of this subject uses science fiction stories as analogies to these unanswered questions in The Simulated Multiverse, by Rizwan Virk.  Virk skips over the scientific method to dabble in ideas of pseudoscience like Erich von Däniken or an episode of In Search Of…, blending bits of the history of science with the “what ifs” of a Dan Brown novel, James Rollins’ The Last Odyssey, or the Wachowskis’ The Matrix.  It’s an interesting trip full of elements that are integral to understanding much of pop culture fiction.  The book’s impetus is an obscure postulate by science fiction’s own Philip K. Dick, and the conversation interconnects everything from Sliders to Star Trek.

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Glass magician cover

Review by Elizabeth C. Bunce

Caroline Stevermer’s acclaimed historical fantasy work now includes a tale of turn-of-the-twentieth century New York City and its magical elite.  In The Glass Magician a stage magician discovers there’s much more to her identity—and her talents—than she ever realized.

Thalia Cutler is a natural-born stage magician.  Trained in the craft by her late father and his lifelong friend, now her manager, Thalia and her tricks entertain crowds on the East Coast vaudeville circuit.  But this is not exactly the 1905 East Coast of our world; this is an alternate historical America where people with real magic live alongside the Solitaires, or mundane folk.  Well, not quite alongside: the wealthy Traders are the elite and powerful upper crust of society, barely deigning to acknowledge the Solitaires; and the solemn Silvestri keep to themselves, literally communing with nature.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

We’re accustomed to seeing non-fiction tie-in books digging into what makes the big sci-fi franchises so popular.  But it’s only a recent trend that publishers are meeting fan demand by digging into those television series that don’t have the established fan bases and studio support.  Firefly was probably the first series to break out in this way, but publishers are now seeing–thanks to streaming platforms specifically–that fans want more content about their favorite shows.  Following recent books like Jeff Bond’s The World of The Orville (reviewed here at borg) and The Art and Making of the Expanse (reviewed here), the next acclaimed science fiction series has a behind-the-scenes account with Mike Avila’s The Man in the High Castle: Creating the Alt World from Titan Books.

Designed almost identically to the successful The World of The Orville, this look at Amazon Studios’ The Man in the High Castle: Creating the Alt World is both an overview of the series, its characters, its source material, and the creation of its detailed alternate world, and it’s also a visit with the creators behind and in front of the camera that made a complex, highly regarded work of classic sci-fi literature into a compelling benchmark in television storytelling.  As we’ve seen in interviews with Lisa Henson in The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance–Inside the Epic Return to Thra and interviews about the Broccoli family in The Many Lives of Bond: How the Creators of 007 Have Decoded the Superspy, this look at the Amazon series provides one of fandom’s first glimpses at Philip K. Dick’s daughter, Dick estate trustee and series executive producer Isa Dick Hackett.  So whether you liked (or not) how the series took portions of the novel, left some behind, and added new bits, Hackett explains the thought process behind the production’s choices.

The book covers the entire series–all four seasons–and is divided into four sections by theater: the Japanese Pacific States, the Neutral Zone, the Greater Nazi Reich, and Alternate Worlds, and these sections further highlight specific components of the series, including characters, locations, design, costumes, props, and music.  There’s even a section on creating the creepy opening title sequence, slightly altered each season.  And stills of the signage, both re-created concepts and alternate history imagery, provide fans the opportunity to at last study them in detail.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

To understand the scope of celebrated Chinese author Cixin Liu′s 2005 novel Supernova Era, finally available to Western audiences in an English translated edition by Joel Martinsen, it helps to look back to its influences, and those works published since its original publication in China.  At its core, this is a classic science fiction novel of the Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke, and Ray Bradbury school.  It’s a work of speculative fiction, at once arguably both optimistic and dystopian that reads almost like an alternate history in the vein of Dick’s The Man in the High Castle.  Disturbing and horrifying at points, philosophical, and filled with global, international, and political intrigue, it’s also squarely a young adult title, featuring almost exclusively middle grade aged kids tasked with surviving an interstellar holocaust–the actual “supernova” of the title–that quickly fries the DNA of anyone older than the age of thirteen.  The solution?  In the face of their imminent deaths, the world’s adult leaders begin to select youth leadership based on the classic “model United Nations” competitions.  It’s a jarring, but ultimately interesting and clever mash-up of some great tropes of science fiction.

Since the initial publication of Supernova Era in China, we’ve seen parts of the story replayed–possibly even inspiring–many other genre works:  Only last year in we saw Jeff Lemire’s Sentient–a comic book series where the adults on a ship are killed in a sabotage leaving kids to run a spaceship.  Here, we follow two small groups of children, the cabinet who must lead China and the cabinet who leads the United States, without the help, advice, education, and other benefits of adults or adulthood, on a global stage.   At first, the children default to letting an Internet-like artificial intelligence computer–the Digital Domain–help keep society in order, something like the robot in last year’s Netflix movie, I Am Mother, where a computer system’s robotic surrogate fulfills all parental duties to children.

When the daily toil of work grinds the kids in the Supernova Era into a state of boredom, they reach out to a massively multi-player online roleplaying game (MMPORG) and begin to build their real lives around it, as we saw in Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel, Ready Player One, where a future society allows itself to give up life in the real world to become lost inside a virtual reality MMPORG.  And the world’s kid leadership ultimately decide they need to compete with other nations, creating a worldwide version of Suzanne Collins’ 2008 novel The Hunger Games (also inspired by Stephen King’s novel, The Running Man) with a society relying on a new world construct with quirky contrived, artificial new rules of survival, battling wars with gameboard rules to the death.  Were these authors aware of Liu’s internationally known and respected work?  Possibly, but it’s the earlier works that served at least in part as influences on Liu’s novel.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

How often does a television series stay powerfully compelling for the entirety of its run?  Most series, especially science fiction series, have a freshman and sophomore season full of bad episodes and clunky storylines.  With a fourth season now one for the books, Amazon Studios’ The Man in the High Castle is the exception, and nothing short of cinema magic that the final season of the series didn’t miss a beat in its final ten episodes.  The series has been a slow burn from the first season, but if you enjoy the idea of an alternate universe that doubles as an alternate history story–and nobody made them better than author Philip K. Dick–then this is the series for you, waiting for you to stream its 40 episodes right now.  It all began with a first-rate pilot (first previewed here at borg) set in a gut-wrenching world where the Axis beat the Allies in World War II, created five years ago for Amazon’s first run at a series format.  From the meticulously re-created sets, buildings, landscapes, costumes, props, and vehicles, to a script that may very well reflect the smartest and most tense science fiction ever to hit television sets, The Man in the High Castle proves Amazon Studios can match (and beat) the quality of programming of any of its competitors.

The themes are unfortunately current, grand and weighty like the best science fiction should be, and Santayana’s warning was probably never better illustrated in fiction form, asking the question: Could Nazi leadership of the homegrown American variety be worse than a threat from foreign invaders?  The show also explores other big ideas, like the idea that you may not be the very best possible version of yourself (and what you could do about it).  Most series are top-heavy, relying too much on the lead characters to drive the story.  The writers of The Man in the High Castle took the time to completely flesh out dozens of key supporting characters, each one critical to the story, and all an example of world-building detail that every writer should take notes on.  Every thread they created gets nicely tied up by the final episode.  The very best, most complex and creative character arcs on any series this decade happened here.  And the series’ climactic scene is simply goosebump-inducing.  The pool of candidates for anyone’s best TV actor and actress this year?  They should begin with this series.

Back again is Alexa Davalos as the world-bending, judo teacher-turned resistance strategist.  She was joined by last year’s new suave, rogue soldier, played by Jason O’Mara.  They have the knowledge to potentially save their world and infinite others, but how do they decide what is the right way to do it? Leading the bad guys on the American front again is Rufus Sewell′s Reichsmarshall John Smith, whose performance as the rising Nazi leader is so convincing viewers will never see what’s coming next, and his wife Helen, played by Chelah Horsdal, gets to step into the spotlight in nerve-wracking ways this season.  Joel de la Fuerte, as Japan’s Emperor’s leader in San Francisco, is so versatile he should be the most sought-after actor on the planet.  This year they are joined by new good guys played by Frances Turner and Clé Bennett, who bring a welcome, late-breaking twist to the outcome of the world, plus the return of Quinn Lord as the alt world’s Thomas Smith.  Even the kids playing the daughters–Genea Charpentier and Gracyn Shinyei–are scary good (meriting inclusion on our ever-growing horror film “creepy little girls” list).

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Review by C.J. Bunce

It was such a big deal to prepare for, and then it was over in an instant never to be heard from again.  That’s Y2K, or the Millennium Bug, and it’s a fun time to look back on especially if it’s part of that richly detailed Anno Dracula universe created by British author Kim Newman (who we interviewed six years ago for Halloween here at borg).  The third story in Newman’s Christina Light arc (after the comic series Anno Dracula 1895: Seven Days in Mayhem and novel Anno Dracula: One Thousand Monsters), Anno Dracula 1999: Daikaiju gathers a team of real and unreal, dead and undead, at a giant skyscraper in Tokyo on December 31, 1999, for the New Year’s party to end all New Year’s parties.

Newman is the master of world-building and mash-ups, and he doesn’t disappoint in this new October release.  In what horror universe is both John Blutarski a U.S. Senator partying in Japan (remember John Belushi’s character in Animal House?), the Apollo 13 movie included the first vampire astronaut, and Charlie’s Angels reconvene years later?  Anno Dracula continues its mix of historic characters of pop culture and politics and those throwback tangent characters from literature, TV, and movies.  In Anno Dracula 1999: Daikaiju readers can remember what it was like to “party like it’s 1999” with an alternate history where Dracula and vampires have always been real.

One of many tangent characters in Kim Newman’s latest Anno Dracula novel.

Newman includes so many Easter eggs in his books that finding them all–probably impossible for anyone that isn’t Kim Newman–should be part of some kind of international contest.

The New Year’s party of this story is in honor of Christina Light, famed vampire princess.  But will she show, and will anyone even get through the labyrinthine skyscraper to attend on the 88th floor by midnight?  Who is the shadowy Jun Zero?  Is Y2K really a bug, or is it a person, or worse: that daikaiju in the title is the name of the tower in Tokyo that houses the offices of an international conglomerate, but it also means “big monsters.”  So get ready for anything to happen, including the appearance of a cyborg and maybe even Dracula himself, as distinguished guests, leaders of finance, tech, and culture, are held hostage by yakuza assassins and Transylvanian mercenaries.  Enter vampire schoolgirl Nezumi–agent of the Diogenes Club–who finds herself and her trusty sword named “Goodnight Kiss” pitted against the deadliest creatures the world has ever known.

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We previewed Amazon Prime’s first trailer for the final season of The Man in the High Castle here back in February, and we had a glimpse at an opening scene from the first episode of season four.  Last year’s finale for the season, our pick for last year’s best sci-fi TV here at borg, featured a 1960s sci-fi scene with its own version of Stranger Things.  Another trailer is here, and this one finally confirms Chelah Holsdal′s bigger role as Helen Smith, wife of the new leader of the Nazis and former U.S. soldier, John Smith, played by Rufus Sewell.

With Germany’s move on the Japanese States thwarted, a revolution has gained traction out West, and viewers were left with series lead Alexa Davalos’s heroic leader Juliana seemingly understanding how to phase-travel like Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa′s Tagomi had done.  Helen and her girls have John Smith, and Himmler is taken down in an assassination attempt.  Yes, a lot was resolved, but we’re also set up for a big, brutal finale this next year, especially as Joel de la Fuente′s Inspector Kido gains more influence and power.  Who will win the battle for the World War II outcomes of all dimensions, the U.S., Japan, or Germany?  (Sounds like a game of Axis & Allies to us).

Is Helen Smith finally going to kill her husband John for letting her son die?  It seems likely Philip K. Dick would have approved all the updates and extensions to his novel in this show.  Here is the latest look at the final season of The Man in the High Castle:

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